AS THE BJP headed for its historic win in Gujarat, BJP state chief C R Paatil declared that incumbent Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel will take oath as the CM. In a break from tradition, the party, including top leaders Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, had made it clear in the run-up to the polls that Patel was its CM face.
The reshuffle of the entire Vijay Rupani Cabinet, and the selection of Patel to replace him, had both come as a surprise last year. However, BJP sources said, the fact that the low-profile Patidar leader is set to continue as CM is no more surprising. Having taken over on September 13 last year, Patel has managed to remain away from the spotlight, shun controversy and, largely, get the work done – in other words, prove the man the party wanted him to be in the run-up to the elections.
After 24 years of uninterrupted BJP governments in Gujarat, 12 of which had Modi as CM, there is “a system in place”, say party leaders, for appointing CMs and running governments in the state, suggesting that Patel had to do little except not make mistakes. With the theme of the BJP campaign in states now being “double engine ki sarkar”, the promise to voters anyway is development powered right from the top, at the Centre, should they choose a BJP government.
“What did he (Patel) have to do anyway, except maintain the status quo?” said a BJP leader, adding that the first-time MLA from Ghatlodia in Ahmedabad, thrust into the CM post, had done that appreciatively.
A Kadva Patidar like Patel, the leader pointed out that Rupani, brought in mid-term as a replacement for Anandiben Patel, had been retained as CM too when the BJP came back to power in 2017.
However, the fact also is that the BJP would not want to shake up things too much. Party leaders admit that while the Rupani change was smooth, there were several ruffled feathers. A leader said the BJP high command “would like to give a semblance of stability” by repeating Patel.
Incidentally, before their statements of faith in Patel, Rupani was moved out of the way, getting an assignment after a year of waiting as in-charge of faraway Punjab and Chandigarh.
Patel’s year-long tenure was not devoid of crises, including floods, with parts of Saurashtra going under water. The government had to retract a controversial stray cattle control Bill following protests, was questioned over a hooch tragedy that left 42 dead in the dry state, saw a haul of 3,000 kg heroin at the Mundra port that was mired in controversy, faced agitations by government employees, encountered blowback over remission of life sentences of 11 convicts in the 2002 Bilkis Bano gangrape case, and the Morbi bridge collapse days before the polls.
The high points of Patel’s tenure included the Narmada waters reaching the farthest end of Kutch, the signing up of a contract with Vedanta-Foxconn for a prestigious semiconductor facility, Gujarat winning the bid to host the National Games for the first time, and getting to host the Defence Expo — all seen as having the blessings of the Modi government at the Centre.
Under Patel’s leadership, the BJP has also performed commendably in the two elections it faced: to the Gandhinagar Municipal Corporation and close to 9,000 gram panchayats. While the BJP won 41 of the 44 seats in the Gandhinagar corporation, it is estimated to have bagged more than 70% of the gram panchayat seats, which are not fought on party symbols.
Patel’s dexterity in holding the ship steady despite being a first-time MLA running a ministry of 24, of mostly first-time ministers, did not go unnoticed. A senior party office-bearer described the CM as a man who makes decisions slowly but steadily, well aware of his “limitations”. “I do not think that the Bhupendra Patel government was appointed with the hope that it will perform a miracle. The brief was clear; not to commit any major mistake. And the government has stuck by that… It is true that Patel has not had to take any major decisions, but this too was not expected. Given his lack of experience in the top post and the prevailing difficult times, one must give him credit for not taking any wrong decision. And whenever some mistakes were made (like the non-appointment of an OBC Commission in time to meet a court condition, or the cattle Bill), the damage control was done very swiftly.”
The leader also cited lack of dissent as another point in favour of Patel.
A Leuva Patidar BJP leader from Saurashtra said: “Generally speaking, there has been no major agitation like the Patidar reservation, the unreserved (general) classes are also happy… Leuva and Kadva Patidars are more or less united now, everyone wants samajik samrasta (social harmony).”
A man of few words, dressed in shirts and trousers unlike his Gujarat counterparts, Patel has also not let his government be bogged down by unnecessary rows usually associated with the BJP, and triggered often by its affiliated outfits. One of Patel’s strongest public statements was that his government “had no problem with what anyone ate”, at the peak of protests by some BJP leaders against against non-veg food being sold on the streets.
There were no untoward statements or celebrations by BJP ranks following the arrest of activist Teesta Setalvad or the release of the Bilkis accused.
Leaders said if Patel enjoys the trust of Amit Shah, Modi too appreciates these qualities in the CM. He is known to describe Bhupendra Patel as “mrudu ane makkam (soft and firm)”.